A Hard Place To Live–Part Two

The new Chairman of Surgery had only been in town for a few weeks when he asked me to accompany him for a drive to visit a friend in Westchester.  The new Chairman had just moved to New York after a distinguished, meteoric career at a famous medical center in the South.  Not the south side of New York.  I mean the South; where people are friendly and the pace is peaceful and life is grand.  He was, shall we say, new to New York.1-new-york-city-1270751697

The new Chairman had a research buddy in Westchester that he wanted to visit and it was a beautiful, sunny Sunday.  He thought we should drive his BMW the couple of hours it should take and I could help navigate and I’d surely be interested in the research project they were to discuss.  I had to explain that I had never been to Westchester and that my sense of direction is limited to up and down, and that only on a good day.  He was undaunted.

We started off confidently, driving down the Long Island Expressway at a good clip, discussing the new Chairman’s grand plans for the department.  As we began to navigate the sinuous and subtle exchanges of the various parkways and expressways of the city proper, our conversation lagged as we quickly realized that we didn’t know exactly where we were going.  This was confirmed when we passed under a large sign reading “New Jersey.”  Westchester, we were quite sure, was still in New York. Unfortunately, we were now on the rather intimidating approach to the George Washington Bridge and it appeared that our fate lay in crossing the Hudson River despite our reluctance.  As we paused at the toll booth, the new Chairman expressed to the toll worker that we really were going to Westchester.

“But you’re going the wrong way,” the toll booth attendant informed us.  We acknowledged this helpful bit of information and inquired how we could avoid crossing the bridge.  “You can’t,” she said.  “What you need to do is take the first exit after the bridge, get off the expressway, make a left and cross under to the other side, then get back on the expressway and come back over the bridge.  That’ll be sixteen dollars.”  The new Chairman thanked her for her helpful advice and got change for his twenty.  Now certain of our path, he did exactly as she recommended.  As he crossed under the bridge, however, a police officer standing just past the left turn waved him over and told he to stop the car.  The new Chairman pulled over and rolled down the window.

“Is there a problem, officer?” the new Chairman asked politely.

“License and registration,” the officer replied.

“I’m sorry?” the new Chairman asked.

“You will be if you don’t give me your license and registration in the next two seconds,” the officer replied.  The new Chairman looked at me.  I shrugged.  He gave the police officer his license and registration.  The officer disappeared to his cruiser.

“What’s going on?” the new Chairman asked.

“Haven’t a clue,” I answered.  “I’m sure we’ll find out, though.”  So we sat and waited to find out.  We sat for a half hour.  At last, the officer reappeared at the window.  He began throwing traffic tickets through the window at the new Chairman.

“Illegal left hand turn, obstructing traffic, expired license,” the cop rattled off, throwing the new Chairman’s license and registration back into the car. “Absent front license plate, failure to use turn signal,” the officer droned on as he continued to fling tickets into the car.

“Hold it, hold it,” the new Chairman spluttered, flabbergasted.  He reached down on the floor to retrieve his driver’s license.  “My license isn’t expired.  I just renewed it before I moved here three weeks ago.  Look,” he held up the license for the officer and indicated the back of the license where the renewal was documented.

The cop took the license and looked at the indicated sticker for a moment, then tossed it back in the car.  “They don’t pay me to look on the back.  Tell it to the judge.”

“Now hold it–” the new Chairman began.

The officer clamped his hand on the new Chairman’s forearm which was resting on the door sill, still holding the dollar bills he had gotten in change from the toll lady.  “And if you say one more word, asshole, I’m gonna arrest you for trying to bribe a police officer.”  He nodded at the four dollars in the new Chairman’s hand.

“You’r not serious,” the new Chairman said.  He turned to me.  “He’s not serious, is he?”

“I think he is,” I advised.  “I think you should stop talking now.”

The officer agreed.  Finally, we were allowed to resume our journey to Westchester.

“This place,” the new Chairman said as we drove on, “is a very hard place to live.”

I had to agree.

A Hard Place To Live: part one

I haven’t lived in New York my whole life.  This is important.  New Yorkers–that is, those individuals born and raised in NY–are a special breed.  [Pause for definition:  New Yorker–an individual born and raised, having attended Public or Catholic school through high school, in one of the five boroughs. Usually Queens or Brooklyn.  Sorry Upstaters, you might as well have been raised in Pennsylvania, or on the Moon.]  Even if they have moved away from NY for long periods of time, these individuals return prepared; armored, fortified, energized, dauntless.  Nothing about living in NY fazes these folks.  For those of us who have adopted NY as our home, however, it is quite a different story.  Despite residing on Long Island for close to thirty years now, I continue to wince on an almost daily basis.  I wince at drivers deliberately driving through red lights in the middle of the day–because they’re driving a school bus.  I wince at airport cops who bang on my car and call me things that would get you hit over the head with a beer mug in a Dallas bar because I had the nerve to slow down to pick up my daughter who’s standing right there with her luggage.  I wince at the high school counselor that explains to me that “You gotta realize that maybe college ain’t for every goddamn kid just because they got a doctor for a parent, you know?”  Real New Yorkers never wince.  Rule Number One:  Never show fear.Guggenheim ext

New York is a hard place to live.  Real New Yorkers do not appreciate this fact.  When informed of this unassailable truth, the New Yorker looks at you with a mixture of confusion and pity.  “You from Jersey?” they may ask.  But they really don’t care about your answer. Rule Number Two:  Only New Yorkers can criticize New York.  They don’t understand that both parents need to work two or three jobs, have Sis watch the kids almost every day, and put the weekly groceries on the credit card just to survive here.  They have no clue that they could be living in a four bedroom McMansion with a live-in maid and two acres in 98% of the rest of the country for what they’re spending to barely make ends meet with the mother-in-law living in the basement and paying rent.  She does, however, make her own sauce and have dinner ready almost every night.  Real New Yorkers wouldn’t consider moving, because there is no where else in the world to live.  Visit, sure.  Maybe even for a few years.  But not live.

In New York, one assumes that the car facing you at the red light will make a left in front of you as soon as the light turns.  That if you want your groceries bagged, maybe you should reach over and put the groceries in the bag, why don’t you?  That if you allow more than ten inches between your car and the car in front of you, somebody will cut in, maybe two cars and a bus, and that this process will continue until you realize that you are actually getting farther and farther away from your destination. That if you want to get over to take that exit, you are going to have to just close your eyes and turn the wheel as you listen for the sound of screeching metal.  Rule Number Three:  Never make eye contact.

New Yorkers don’t realize that there is no help in this environment.  On the expressway, signs are either positioned to appear just beyond the exit you needed to take, or are rendered illegible by graffiti, or have rusted to the point of pointing in slightly the wrong direction.  No matter how intelligent you are or how long you stand staring at the changing big board in Penn Station as throngs stream about you like so much spawning salmon, you will not get on the right train, and therefore you will be at least forty minutes late for your appointment, and when you do arrive you will have sweat stains under your arms and your collar will be two sizes too small for your neck.  New Yorkers don’t realize that you could’ve gotten the six blocks cross town quicker by walking than by sitting in the back of a taxi that moves less than eight feet in thirty minutes despite blowing its horn continuously as the driver yells an unceasing stream of something unintelligible which you eventually realize is his hands-free cellphone conversation and not directed at you at all.  They don’t realize this because New Yorkers don’t take taxis in New York.  Rule Number Four:  If you don’t know how to get there, you have no business being here.

It’s a great town, of that there is no doubt.  The people are the best in the world.  But it is a hard place to live.  Rule Number Five:  You have to want to be here.

Superman is a Myth

It was a classic Superman moment.  A train of seventy-two railroad cars filled with highly flammable liquid was poised precariously on a hill above a sleepy town filled with innocent Canadians.  It was dark.  There was no driver or attendant to witness that the airbrakes preventing the train from slipping are slowly draining pressure.  The train begins to slowly roll downhill, picking up momentum as it ponderously but inevitably begins to roll faster and faster towards the center of town, disaster looming–but wait!  Here he comes, streaking out of sky!  A red and blue caped blur, a powerful hand braced against the lead locomotive, a grimace and then, with a squeal–all is saved, disaster averted.Minolta DSC

Only it didn’t happen.  No Superman.  Instead, disaster, death, and destruction.  Innocent lives lost.  The classic Superman moment, one I had witnessed in comics and onscreen since my wide-eyed youth, went horribly wrong.  No Superman.

At first, I hoped and believed that Superman could not save the day because he was otherwise occupied achieving even greater goodliness, saving even larger populations of threatened innocents.  But I checked–it seems that North Korea had not simultaneously launched  a nuclear tipped missile aimed at a New York museum at the exact moment that Lois Lane was visiting with her little nephew’s fourth grade class.  The only other possible explanation, that Lex Luthor had Superman incapacitated under a geodesic dome made of Kryptonite, was also disproved by a quick Google search.  No Superman.

How could it be that Evil had triumphed?  How could the sinister forces of darkness and malevolence succeed, unchecked by our heroes?  Such a situation is contrary to the workings of a moral universe, would require the balance beam of justice to be bent beyond all reasonable fairness.  Not possible; the Fates are not so cruel.

But, hold on a second.  Deep investigation reveals no Fates, cruel or otherwise, in the immediate vicinity at the time of the accident.  Reviews of salient radar logs show a sky clear of evil, flying monkeys.  Overhead satellite imaging clearly indicates that a demonic miasma did not dissolve the critical feedlines to the airbrakes.  Not at all.  No Evil, either, it seems.

No, upon further investigation it appears that a well-meaning crew of volunteer firemen, responding to a fire on the train, skillfully extinguished the blaze.  They did their best, including following the protocol which required them to shut down the engine to the burning train.  The engine that provided the pressure necessary to maintain the airbrakes.  And then they went home.

No evil.  Not even an absence of good intent.  But no Superman.

It makes me sad.

My heartfelt sympathy to the families of the victims of the Canadian railway tragedy.

Requiem en pace

You, Too Can Be a Writer!

~first posted 21 Dec 12

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that writing is not all that difficult. I know, that sounds wrong. We are all avid readers, we live in awe of the great books we have read over the years. As individuals and as a society, we pay great respect to our authors. They are constantly on Fresh Air, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Sixty Minutes–hell, they’re everywhere. It’s like they’re superstars, even though most are not all that photogenic and many mumble a lot. But we love them, one and all.IMG_0641

We love them, even though what they do isn’t all that difficult. I presume that they are caught up in the whole cult of the mysterious, creative artist thing we have in this country (though not to the degree they have it in France, say, or Sedona). I can assure you, however, that what you do for a living every day is much more difficult, and I say that without being completely certain what it is that you do. It’s easier, believe me. I bet that at your job, you don’t get to show up whenever you like, take a nap whenever you like (writers call this story development), grab a snack whenever you like. You probably can’t perform your job half-drunk or recovering from a bender (admittedly, I’m making some assumptions here; like you’re not a NY State Supreme Court justice). But the writing part, I hear you protesting, the writing is hard. Actually, it isn’t. If the writer can’t think of the right word, they have all kinds of reference books he can consult to help find it. If you write something really awful, they let you go back and rewrite it as many times as you need to–kind of like going to Yale. Hell, you don’t even have to be a really good speller–chances are they’re going to hire somebody to fix all that stuff anyway. I have to tell you, writing really isn’t all that hard. Certainly a lot easier than trying to get a half-trained surgical resident through the removal of a tumor from some patient’s liver without cutting open something that’ll make a big mess. I know, I’ve done both and believe me, the surgery thing is way harder. And you have to stand through the whole thing.

No, the writing thing is pretty easy. Even the hardest part–the part where you come up with the idea–is pretty straightforward. You’ve done it, I’m sure. You’ve had great ideas for a novel. You’re living with a schnook that’s more of a character than you find in most novels. You may have even lived through one or two things that would make a great story. You’ve told people about it, but mostly while you were pretty drunk at a bar that was so loud that she wasn’t really listening but just nodding and smiling to be nice. You could write a book.

But you haven’t. You should you know. It’s not that hard.